Shofetim: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Tzedek in Process as Well as Verdict

The first verse of the parsha, 16;18, tells us the judges we appoint are to judge the people mishpat tzedekAs we noted in Kedoshim, Onkelos writes din de-keshot, true justice, an interesting assumption about the necessity of truth in justice.

Here, the next verse rules out bribery because it blinds the eyes of the discerning (per the translation of Sefaria.org, who also continue to by my source of nonliteral Onkelos examples, until ArtScroll sends me the last volume of the set), vi-salef divrei tzaddikim, upsets the pleas of the just (the translation already makes a point unclear in the verse, the words affected are those of the litigants, somehow unsettled by the bribe).

Onkelos writes pitgamin teritzin, a phrase I found only here and in Mishpatim 23;8, on the same phrase and same context. Why does he change tzadikim from keshot, truth, as he has it to describe justice, mishpat, in many places, to taritz, well-formulated? Perhaps because this refers to a pre-verdict stage, hearing from the litigants. The judges do not yet know the truth, so perverting justice is not yet on the table. Rather, having taken the bribe, the arguments for the other side will be hurt, less cogently stated than they deserve.

He might mean the litigant will know of the bribe and be nonplussed, hurting his presentation, but I think he might mean something more subtle: having taken the bribe, the judge will hear the claims with a jaundiced ear.

Miscarriages of justice can occur in our evaluation of the evidence, but they can also occur (perhaps more insidiously, in a way harder to rectify) at the evidence-gathering, where we miss the facts, because we only hear what we want to hear. At least, a judge who has taken a bribe will do that, Onkelos has the Torah saying.

The Limited Shimush of Aramaic

A Levi may choose to serve in the Temple at any time. In allowing it—rather than insisting a Levi come only when it’s his turn–18;7 speaks of ve-sheret sham, he shall serve there, with the other Levi’im ha-omedim, who stand there (in service).

Onkelos translates both Hebrew words, sheret and omed, with the same verb, shamash, to serve.  He turns other Hebrew words into shamash as well: Shemot 19;22 refers to the kohanim ha-nigashim el Hashem, the priests who come near to Gd; and Shemot 35;19 refers to bidgei ha-serad, the service vestments, le-sharet, and le-khahen, priestly service. Nigashim, serad, and le-khahe all earn the same verb in Onkelos, shamasha.

Someone once told me my teacher and master R. Lichtenstein, zt”l, found English a richer language than Hebrew, with more words for various concepts. A lexicon’s wealth allows for greater exactness of presentation, certainly an issue he would have noticed because of his care with conceptual clarity.

In translations, I would have thought it would register as similarly important, to faithfully represent the original text. The Torah found reason to vary its language in all these contexts; Onkelos did not, whether because Aramaic doesn’t have the words for all the synonyms or because he thought the nuances didn’t matter.

Nevu’ah From Gd, Words of Gd to Others

The Jewish people are not allowed to avail themselves of forms of divination other nations use to try to figure out the future. Instead, 18;18 tells us, Gd will set up a prophet, will put His words in the prophet’s mouth. Other Jews must listen to the prophet, risk death at the hands of Heaven if they do not (the Torah says anokhi edrosh me-imo, I will demand it of the person who does not listen to the navi).

Oddly, Onkelos switches his translation of the word devarai, My words. In the first verse, 18;18, where the Torah says ve-etein devarai be-fiv, I will place My words in his mouth, Onkelos has pitgamei nevu’ati, words of My prophecy. Next verse, discussing the person asher lo yishma el devarai, who will not listen to My words, Onkelos writes le-fitgamai, to My words. What changed?

My best guess is it’s a matter of proximity to Gd. When the Torah speaks in dangerously physical terms—I will place My words in his mouth—Onkelos inserts a break, they are the words of prophecy, a reminder the prophet “hears” this communication very differently than ordinary speech.

By the next verse, the person who rejects the Word of Gd has clearly heard it from a prophet, not from Gd. It’s therefore safe to speak of it as devarai, because there is no direct connection to Gd.

War—Noun or Verb?

The parasha describes the procedure for going to war, including exempting various categories of people—someone who was betrothed but had not consummated the marriage, someone who built a home but had not dedicated it, and more. Each time the Torah speaks of milhamah, a word we regularly translate as war, Onkelos instead has le-agaha kerava, to wage war. He seems to have understood war as an activity rather than a state of being—the phrase “we are at war” would have been meaningless to him unless battle was underway.

Interestingly, he has no compunction about ascribing the act of waging war to Gd. 20;4 reassures the people Gd goes with them le-hillahem lakhem, to war for you, and Onkelos translates it le-agahah lekhon kerav, to wage war on your behalf.

I assume the multiple ways war can occur meant it was not linked directly enough to a physical action to run afoul of Oneklos’ antennae for anthropomorphism.

It’s Spilt Blood, Not Just Innocent Blood

The last verse of the parsha, 21;9, concludes the description of the eglah arufah ceremony, where the neck of a heifer is broken to display Jews’ sorrow they did not care properly for a traveler in their midst, who was then murdered (I imagined how the ceremony would look in Murderer in the Mikdash; I published the sequel in April, titled The Making of the Messiah, 2048).

The Torah says ve-atah te-va’er ha-dam hanaki. English translations I saw do not translate it simply, you shall remove the innocent blood from your midst, because why would we want to remove innocent blood? They instead write something along the lines of remove or purge the guilt of the innocent blood.

Onkelos writes tefalei ashdi dam zaki, which I think means (from my best reconstruction using my old Jastrow—waiting on you, ArtScroll!) seek out or remove the spilt innocent blood. He would likely agree with the English translations, but I think he is trying to stay closer to the words in the text. Removal is necessary because the innocent blood was spilt, and that’s what the ceremony addresses, the blood’s having been spilt due to insufficient communal supervision.

About Gidon Rothstein

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